Born To Mack: The Emergence of Shelvin Mack

Friday, December 6, 2013
By Robby Kalland

Los Angeles Clippers v Atlanta Hawks

Shelvin Mack was drafted 34th overall out of Butler University by the Wizards in the 2011 draft, and spent a little over one season in Washington before being cut after appearing in just seven games in the 2012-13 season. Mack was then picked up by the Sixers, where he appeared in four games, before being let go again.

Mack was signed to two 10-day contracts by the Hawks last season, and played well enough to earn a contract that allowed him to play out last year with Atlanta and stay with the Hawks for this season. In 20 games with the Hawks last season, Mack had a 57.1 eFG% and averaged 5.2 points, 2.2 assists, 1.2 rebounds, and 1.2 turnovers per game playing 13.2 minutes per game.

With the Hawks drafting Dennis Schröder in the first round of this summer’s draft, Mack’s role with the team was up in the air. Speaking with Mack in July at Las Vegas Summer League, even he was unsure of what his role would be this season, but made it clear that he would not be discouraged by the Schröder signing, and would compete during the offseason and training camp to earn his minutes. Speaking with Mack this week, I asked if having that competition gave him extra motivation to get better this offseason.

“A little bit. But I’m going to put in extra work regardless. It’s always good to have competition. Steel sharpen steel. So, you know, it’s good to have that competition and battle, and still competing to this day. Nothing’s guaranteed, so just keep working harder every day, and let everything else take care of itself.”

Schröder began the season as the Hawks’ primary back-up point guard, but Mack’s play in sparing minutes early in the season impressed the staff and they began increasing his minutes.

Mack’s breakout performance came in the Hawks’ fifth game against the Knicks in New York, when Mack came off the bench to record his first career double-double with 12 points and 12 assists. From that game on, Mack has averaged 7.0 points, 3.5 assists, 1.3 rebounds, 1 steal, and 0.8 turnovers per game in 19.5 minutes per game and has a 50% effective field goal percentage.

Looking deeper, beyond just his basic stat line, you start to find the reasons why he’s become such an effective player in Coach Bud’s system. Under the watchful eyes of the Hawks’ coaching staff, particularly Kenny Atkinson, Jeff Watkinson, and Quin Snyder, Mack has developed into a very good back-up point guard, and is excelling at both ends of the court.

“I think his development has just been that process from when he got out of college to now,” said Snyder. “Our staff, you know Kenny [Atkinson] and Jeff Watkinson in particular, have been the ones that have guided him through the process…From the summer until now, it’s just been a question of opportunity. If you look at the New York game, he’s been ready. That’s really, really hard to do. To have a situation where you keep working, you stay in shape, you work and work and work, and then you get your opportunity and actually take advantage of it, I have a lot of respect for him.”

One reason for Mack’s success has been his success as a pick-and-roll ball-handler, which is crucial in Coach Budenholzer’s offense. Mack is averaging 0.94 PPP on his 31 pick-and-roll possessions (34.1% of all of his official offensive possessions), which is good for seventh in the NBA. This comes as no surprise as last season he was sixth in the NBA with 0.98 PPP on 60 possesions. His patience in the pick-and-roll game is one of his best attributes, which has allowed him to be an effective scorer and facilitator.

“Oh yeah, we worked on [pick-and-roll ball-handling] a lot this summer with Coach Kenny [Atkinson], watching film, reading the defense and stuff like that,” said Mack. “It’s just being patient, don’t be predetermined on a play and let the play determine itself.”

“That’s a great point [about his patience],” said Snyder. “His pace, sometimes as guys get more comfortable the game slows down for them. It’s like anything, if you’re driving 100 miles an hour down the freeway, it’s tough to read the billboards. When the game starts going slower, your decisions get better and he’s fun to play with. I think guys like playing with him because he makes the right decision a lot of times…I think it’s getting connected with the bigs too. Where over time, those guys create passing lanes for one another.”

Watching Mack play pick-and-roll this season, you can see how he has taken those lessons about being patient and applied it to his play in games. When he comes off of a screen, he has his head up, reading the defenders and then reacting, rather than deciding before the play whether to pass the ball, or drive.

On this particular example against the Pistons, Mack came around a screen from Gustavo Ayon, and had Brandon Jennings trailing him and Andre Drummond caught between Mack and Ayon. Mack read Drummond, who had planted his front foot and was leaning back to recover on Ayon, and took the ball in for the lay-up attempt.

Shelvin PnR

Shelvin’s patience to keep his head up and hesitate for a split second coming off the screen forced Drummond to make the first move, and allowed Shelvin to react to the play and make the right decision (Mack missed the open lay-up, but Ayon got the tip-in follow).

Along with his stellar pick-and-roll game, Mack has improved his spot-up shooting early this season in a small sample size. Mack has made 7-of-15 spot-up attempts and 4-of-9 from three-point range. This is an improvement over his 3-of-12 (3-of-8 from three) shooting on spot-up attempts with the Hawks last year. Mack’s ability to space the floor as a spot-up shooter has allowed Bud to play him with Jeff Teague in two-point guard lineups, which has helped Mack increase his time on the court.

As shown by his shot chart below, Shelvin has gotten the majority of his shots from the center of the court, mainly because the majority of his looks have come off of pick-and-roll and in transition. He has been solid attacking the rim, shooting just over 60% within eight feet of the basket, and has developed a solid floater and pull-up jumper in the paint. When forced to venture outside the paint or the middle of the court, Mack has not been nearly as efficient, which is mainly a consequence of the types of shot attempts he gets in those spots, mainly spot-ups or contested pull-ups, compared to runners, lay-ups, and open pull-ups in the center of the court.

Shelvin Mack shot plot

The offensive game has been impressive, but Mack has always shown the ability to score and facilitate. This year, he is getting more of an opportunity to do so, and is taking advantage of it. Mack says coming to the Hawks from Washington the biggest difference on offense, especially this season, is comfort.

“I’m more comfortable with the personnel, with where Al [Horford] and Paul [Millsap] likes the ball. In DC, they were a young team, so it was kind of hard to figure that stuff out. It’s different when you’ve been watching Al and Paul. Even when I was in college [I watched them], so I understand where they like the ball at. In DC everyone’s young, so it’s different, but that’s the biggest thing.”

Being able to have a full summer and offseason with the coaching staff and roster played a major role in him being so successful this early in the season.

“You know, since summer, it’s been a long offseason. Me, Mike [Scott], John [Jenkins], and, Al [Horford] were here all summer, watching film and stuff. So slowly transitioning from Summer League, you had to get used to the offense. You know, this is my fourth offense within a year, so learning that, watching film, getting comfortable with it, still getting comfortable with it watching film of the Spurs still now. It’s paying off as I understand how people like the ball in certain situations.”

Mack has not only shown his offensive skills, but he is excelling on the defensive end of the court as well. In 102 possessions by Shelvin’s opponents, he is allowing just 0.74 PPP, 36th best among all NBA players, per Synergy Sports. 48 of those possessions (47.1%) have been pick-and-roll possessions, and he is third in the NBA defending the ball-handler allowing just 0.48 PPP and forcing an incredible 15 turnovers on those 48 possessions (31.3%). Last season, Mack allowed 0.84 PPP (167th in the NBA) on 43 pick-and-roll possessions defensively and forced 10 turnovers.

Whereas patience has been a virtue for Mack on the offensive end, awareness has been the biggest improvement on the defensive end. Mack is much more aware of screeners this season, which allows him to get in better position to fight through the screen and recover quickly.

The Hawks “push” on most of their pick-and-roll defensive coverages, which means the Hawks’ bigs do a soft hedge and cut off the ball-handler’s lane to the basket, without over-committing to the ball. Mack has quickly figured out how to position himself to fight over the top of the screen and get back to his man in time to allow the big to retreat to the roll-man, prior to a pass.

On this particular example from Wednesday night’s win over the Clippers, which also highlights the Hawks general scheme in defending pick-and-rolls, Mack fights over two screens in the same possession and is able to get back to contest a Darren Collison mid-range jumper.

In this first photo, you can see how he positions himself to quickly fight over the screen by getting his body on the front shoulder of the screener and his lead foot outside the screener’s base. You can also see how Al Horford is “pushing” the ball-handler away from the paint by obstructing the driving lane, but remaining far enough back to recover quickly onto the screener.

Shelvin Defense One

Mack was able to quickly recover back onto his man, who sets up another screen with the same screener. Mack, scrambling from the first screen, is still able to get in pretty good position to get over the second screen and chase back to Collison, knowing that Horford is going to protect against the initial penetration.

Shelvin Defense Two

In this final photo, Mack is able to recover and contest the pull-up jumper, which was forced by the Hawks’ great rotations. Horford is in the paint protecting the drive and by not over-stepping, he does not allow Collison to take advantage of his quickness to get by him and he also cuts off the bounce pass option. Mike Scott does a great job of staying at home and packing the paint against the roll-man, letting his man flex out to the far corner, cutting off any possibility of a lob to the roller.

Shelvin Defense Three

Mack’s ability to get over the top of screens efficiently and use his quickness to recover back to the ball-handler has been a perfect fit in the Hawks’ pick-and-roll defensive concepts. His communication on the court defensively has been excellent as well and that, paired with his execution, shows how much more comfortable he is on defense after spending an entire offseason with this coaching staff and roster.

The success of Shelvin Mack as the Hawks back-up point guard has been a pleasant surprise as we near the quarter-pole of the season. He has been able to come in and spell Teague when Jeff has needed a breather or, like Wednesday against the Clippers, gets in foul trouble. Mack’s comfort in the team’s offensive and defensive schemes have allowed Coach Bud to have the confidence to turn to Mack even in big moments, like closing out the fourth quarter against the Clippers. As Coach Snyder said, staying ready and taking advantage of the opportunities presented to you is not an easy task, but Mack has done that and has emerged as one of the Hawks’ key role players so far this season.

[Stats, Charts, and Screenshots courtesy of NBA Stats, Basketball-Reference.com, and Synergy Sports]

Photo by Kevin C. Cox/NBAE/Getty Images

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